Listening in a conflict situation – It’s not just about nodding your head….

In the context of conflict resolution, listening as an intervention can be effective at many levels.

In the first place listening is very effective in helping to calm and descalate emotional upset and stress. Letting the person unburden their ‘story’ of what happened can be a very effective way of reducing the emotional arousal; we often use the term ‘vent’ and in effect having someone listen does have a ventilating effect in reducing the heat of the upset, hurt, anger they might be experiencing.

Brain science postulates that neurons in the brain called ‘mirror neurons’ may cause us to simulate the actions and emotions of those we observe. Authentic listening requires a calmness and centredness in the listener, which then in turn can begin to have a similar effect on the speaker who is also observing this. So as a listener, we are modelling as it were a more effective state of mind for the speaker.

We are also modelling for them a skill that might have contributed to the conflict in the first place – namely a lack of them perhaps really hearing and attempting to understand where the other person might be coming from.

Thirdly, brain science is also discovering that being aware of your emotions can help combat amygdala arousal – the amygdala being the part of the brain that reacts in ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode. So listening should also involve the use of reflective questions and statements that focus on helping the speaker to identify and label the emotions they are experiencing.

Reducing the emotional load that the speaker might be feeling is not just an end in itself, rather, having a calming effect on the parts of the brain that are reacting to the situation – the limbic system – you enable another part of the brain to kick into play, namely, the pre-frontal cortex – the rational and thinking part of the brain. It’s only when a person is capable of thinking clearly rather than reacting, that they can begin to engage in reasoning and problem solving – key aspects of conflict resolving.

At a more obvious level but one we often forget, listening to a person in an authentic and non-judgemental manner is an experience that affirms and acknowledges them and what they have to say. And it is this gift of understanding and empathy that can play a key role in developing the trust and rapport that is essential to facilitating them towards solving and resolving rather than blaming and shaming.